Whistling in Kotan

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Dan Sallitt

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Oct 28, 2008, 12:59:24 PM10/28/08
to NaruseRetro, Michael Kerpan
I saw Naruse's WHISTLING IN KOTAN on DVD yesterday - again, it had
French subtitles, but they were much less difficult than the titles on
AS A WIFE, AS A WOMAN, which went by a bit too quickly for me to
read.

KOTAN seems to me one of Naruse's least interesting films. The story,
about the social problems faced by Japan's indigenous Ainu, is mostly
centered on the reactions of the characters to their oppressed state,
and doesn't give Naruse as much room to maneuver as usual.
Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa's go-to guy, hits
themes hard and simply - the effect doesn't bother me as much as when
Zenzo Matsuyama does it, maybe because the subject matter here seems
simple in the first place.

In retrospect, the movie has a number of story complications, usually
of an anticlimactic nature, that feel like Naruse to me. The section
in which an old grandmother desperately tries to marry off her
granddaughter across racial lines comes to a conclusion so bleak,
destructive and absurd that it's hard to imagine it in anyone else's
movie. But it still plays with too much pathos and high drama to feel
distinctive. Actually, nearly every dramatic movement in the film
fails to arrive at the expected moment of release. The most Naruse-
like section of the film is the final one, with a major character
dying senselessly and leaving a storytelling void that is unexpectedly
filled by one of the most unsympathetic in a long line of
unsympathetic Naruse males. And yet the characters here struggle in
too narrow an emotional context for Naruse to craft any major,
satisfying story inflections.

The film looks great, anyway, with attractive widescreen compositions
that place the characters solidly in the rural Hokkaido landscape and
bring out the abstract, almost geometrical aspects of locations.
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